09 Jul Belonging Before Believing
[C]hange is not confined merely to the Bahá’ís and those who are involved in the core activities called for by the Plan, who might reasonably be expected to adopt new ways of thinking over time. The very spirit of the place is affected. A devotional attitude takes shape within a broad sweep of the population. // Universal House of Justice, Ridván Letter 2013
It was never going to be easy for Saint Patrick. Though today he is loved and revered internationally as one of the most prominent symbols of Ireland, in the late fourth century he was just an escaped slave in Ireland, an English teenager running from the law in a land that regarded him and his newly-found Christian faith as a threat against the social order.
A few years later, after returning home to his family in Roman Britain, God gave him a vision to do the unthinkable — return to the land that had enslaved him and teach them the faith of Jesus. Could God have asked anything harder of him? This was a pretty extreme request, even if Patrick didn’t already have some severe trauma from being owned by other human beings there — the Irish didn’t exactly like Britons — even back then. The Irish were proud warriors, pagan in their religious beliefs, and dismissive of Christianity as being for “weak” and “soft” foreigners.
But we know today that Patrick was so successful in teaching Christianity in Ireland that he was made a saint by the church and is regarded as the most famous Irishman of all time. How did he do it?
He recognized that most people need to belong before they can believe. When he moved to a new area to teach the faith, he didn’t divide people into the categories of believers and nonbelievers (except for the purpose of administering sacrament). For practically every activity that he organized, he included everyone in the area unless they specifically opted out. This probably annoyed a lot of the locals at first, but after a while most of them began to appreciate that Patrick thought of them as integral to the faith community he was helping to build. This approach to teaching didn’t bring instant results, but after outsiders felt comfortable belonging, their hearts became receptive to believing the radical message of Jesus that was totally against the worldview they were brought up with.
In fact, the concept of a “parish” mirrors this. Much like clusters in the Baha’i world in the last 15 years, Catholic church parishes are administrative boundaries that theoretically include every soul living in their jurisdiction — Catholic believers and non-Catholics alike. In fact, this concept was so advanced in the American state of Louisiana that instead of subdividing the new state into counties, they mostly stuck with the parish boundaries the Church already laid out — and even continued calling the new units “parishes” instead of “counties”. Just like in Saint Patrick’s day, if you live there, you’re included unless you opt-out.
What does this mean for the growth of your local Baha’i community? Think big and be inclusive. Remove any cultural barriers between seekers and Baha’u’llah’s message. If always reading prayers out of a book makes seekers in an evangelical Christian area uncomfortable, offer to sometimes say spontaneous prayers they way that they’re accustomed to. If playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” during devotions (this has really happened) makes outsiders shift in their seat, choose music that speaks more to their experience.
In addition, let seekers contribute to the life of the Baha’i community as much as they are comfortable. Short of encouraging them to crash Feast or an LSA meeting, let them know that they’re welcome at every event going on in the Baha’i community. Invite them to serve.
But mostly, just invite people in your community, both Baha’is and seekers, to live life with you. Make friends with them. Invite them out for dinner. Drop by to watch the big game.
“They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations.” // Baha’u’llah
We can talk about principles all day, but if we don’t make a real effort to include others in our lives we will never be able to change society. Our local Baha’i communities will lose their effectiveness and stagnate. We can’t afford to let that happen.